7 big areas where Jeff Sessions could change policy at DOJ – Politico

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Sen. Jeff Sessions was an instantly divisive figure when President-elect Donald Trump named him as his next attorney general: conservatives and immigration hardliners welcomed the choice, while civil-rights groups and Democrats spent the day attacking the pick, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren saying his selection would be a “compromise with racism,” and Sen. Cory Booker saying, “I am concerned that he possesses ideologies that are in conflict with basic tenants of the Justice Department’s mission.”

In part the critics’ focus was on controversial past comments by Sessions, such as accusations that he said the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union were “un-American,” and joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK, until I learned they smoked pot.” But much of the concern is what he’d actually do as AG: that he’d undermine civil rights protections, prosecute more undocumented immigrants and allow companies to go wild with mergers.

So what could he really do? Some cabinet-level jobs have limited power to affect the country, either because of their narrow mission or the slow rule-making processes needed to make major changes in public policy. Not so the Attorney General. Though sitting on top of the vast Department of Justice bureaucracy, the AG has wide discretion to shift American policy in huge ways simply by how he prioritizes its limited resources—which cases the office chooses to prosecute and which ones it lets go. It runs dozens of agencies, including the powerful FBI, DEA, and the immigration courts. And it also, insiders say, exerts huge influence on the White House’s own sense of its power.

“At every cabinet meeting, they are the person who everyone goes to and says what are range of options,” said a former Bush administration official. “Being able to cabin or expand the range of options available to the executive branch is a very powerful capability.”

How could Sessions leave his fingerprints on the country? POLITICO talked with former DOJ officials and experts in various issues over which the attorney general has significant sway. Here are seven areas where Sessions could most dramatically change public policy.

1. Immigration

The stakes are high for many undocumented immigrants, particularly those who become caught up in the criminal justice system. The Department of Justice has two distinct areas of power over immigration: prosecuting immigration violations and administering the immigration courts. It has considerable authority over the enforcement of immigration laws, such illegal reentry into the U.S. and immigration fraud. For instance, under Obama, the DOJ worked with the Department of Homeland Security on a program called Operation Streamline which prosecuted immigrants caught illegally crossing the border, which carries stricter consequences than if those caught at the border had just been returned to the other side. This program, widely hated by immigration activists, was scaled back in recent years.

A different agency within the Justice Department adjudicates the appeals of immigration court rulings and its decisions set precedent for future cases. Those decisions can often be technical and deal with arcane areas of immigration law but they can often be life-or-death decisions for the appellants, such as in cases over asylum law. The attorney general can overturn any precedent decision by designating it for review, granting him a significant power to change immigration policy.

“The attorney general has tremendous authority over the enforcement of immigration law,” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyers based in Cleveland.

There’s no specific number of undocumented immigrants who may be at risk if Sessions, who is known as a hard-liner on immigration, is confirmed as attorney general. But it could be part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration, fostering greater fear among undocumented immigrants and making it harder for asylum-seekers to stay in the country legally.

2. Surveillance

The Department of Justice is responsible for defending the government in all surveillance disputes, such as when Apple refused to help the FBI decrypt the iPhone owned by the attacker in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. It also is responsible for defending the government before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees national security surveillance. Those decisions will now fall to Sessions and the people he installs at DOJ.

As POLITICO reported earlier today, Sessions has supported allowing law enforcement wide range to access that data, criticizing Apple in the San Bernardino case and warning against any attempts to constrain the NSA. The technology industry is already worried about how he will handle surveillance programs. After the Snowden leaks, tech companies have become more hesitant to share data with the federal government and more willing to go to court to prevent law enforcement companies from accessing their customers’ data, such as email, without a warrant.

A Sessions-run DOJ that takes a tough line against tech companies could result in much more heated battles between the government and industry—and fewer privacy protections for everyday American.

3. Police misconduct

Under Obama, the Department of Justice has made it a priority to crack down on police misconduct. Some of that has come through grants to local law enforcement agencies to purchase body cameras and other tools and through a task force to improve policing tactics. But one major tactic to clean up police departments has been through investigations by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, either into specific incidents or broad examinations of police departments.

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